Disasters like wildfires are typically unexpected and sudden. The emotional toll can be more devastating than financial or property damages and can impact individuals that aren’t even directly involved. We experience a wide range of symptoms that affect both our minds and our bodies. It’s important that we understand natural responses to traumatic events so we can cope effectively and seek professional help when we need it.
Common Reactions to Traumatic Experiences
Intense or unpredictable feelings. You may be anxious, nervous, overwhelmed, sad, or grief-stricken. You may also feel more irritable or moody than usual, or feel fidgety or exhausted. You may also feel numb and feel nothing at all.
Changes to thoughts and behavior patterns. You might have repeated and vivid memories of the event. These memories may occur for no apparent reason and may lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating. It may be difficult to concentrate or make decisions.
Sensitivity to environmental factors. Sirens, loud noises, burning smells or other environmental sensations may stimulate memories of the disaster creating heightened anxiety. These “triggers” may be accompanied by fears that the stressful event will be repeated.
Strained relationships. Increased conflict, such as more frequent disagreements with family members and coworkers, can occur. You might also become withdrawn, isolated or disengaged from your usual social activities.
Stress-related physical symptoms. Headaches, nausea, stomachaches, or changes in eating, drinking, or sleeping patterns.
Fortunately, research shows that most people are resilient and over time are able to bounce back from tragedy. It is common for people to experience stress in the immediate aftermath, but within a few months, most people are able to resume functioning as they did prior to the disaster. It is important to remember that resilience and recovery are the norms, not prolonged distress.
How Do I Cope
There are a number of steps you can take to build emotional well-being and gain a sense of control following a disaster, including the following:
- Keep informed about new information and developments, but avoid overexposure to news rebroadcasts of the events. Be sure to use credible sources of information to avoid speculation and rumors.
- Give yourself time to adjust. Anticipate that this will be a difficult time in your life. Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced and try to be patient with changes in your emotional state.
- If you feel anxious, angry or depressed, you are not alone. Talk to friends, family or colleagues who likely are experiencing the same feelings.
- Communicate your experience. Express what you are feeling in whatever ways feel comfortable to you — such as talking with family or close friends or others that have also experienced the fire, keeping a journal or engaging in a creative activity (e.g., drawing, molding clay, etc.).
- Engage in healthy behaviors. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. If you experience ongoing difficulties with sleep, you may be able to find some relief through relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol and drugs because they can be a numbing diversion that could detract from as well as delay active coping and moving forward from the disaster.
- Establish or re-establish routines. This can include eating meals at regular times, sleeping and waking on a regular cycle, or following an exercise program. Build-in some positive routines to have something to look forward to during these distressing times, like pursuing a hobby, spending time with friends, or reading a good book.
Avoid making major life decisions. Switching careers or jobs and other important decisions tend to be highly stressful in their own right and even harder to take on when you’re recovering from a disaster.
When to Seek Professional Help
Feelings of anxiety and depression following a traumatic event are natural. If these symptoms continue, even after order has been restored, or if these feelings begin to overwhelm you and prevent you from getting through your day, seek the advice of a mental health professional at Sunshine Community Health Center.
Information adapted from materials provided by FEMA, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association.